Speech by Síle de Valera, T.D.,

Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands

at the launch of 'Grace Gifford Plunkett and Irish Freedom'

by Marie O'Neill,

Kilmainham Gaol,

Tuesday, 29 February 2000.


I am both delighted and honoured to have been invited here today to Kilmainham Gaol to launch 'Grace Gifford Plunkett and Irish Freedom' by Marie O'Neill.

The grey, brooding bulk of Kilmainham Gaol, I am happy to see, resolutely continues to maintain both its place on the historical horizon of this country and its grip on the imagination of our writers and artists at the start of the new Millennium.

The rising sense of anticipation we felt on the slow, some might say tortuous build up to the 31st of December has left us all suffering somewhat from a surfeit of the M word. Thus, it is only now that we are beginning to take stock of the century's turn and its significance. Gradually we are starting to recognise it as the invisible yet real milestone in the motorway of time that it actually is. Already, at this early stage of the New Year we can feel a certain detachment from the 1900s and are beginning to regard the happenings of the last century with a more dispassionate eye. An almost tangible sense of distance can be felt. This can be only a good thing for our sense of history. No single epoch in our history can benefit as much as that of Easter Week of 1916.

It can be claimed with some confidence that no epoch has stimulated a sharper controversy or dug a deeper ditch between the opposing sides of the historical debate. Certainly this is not the occasion to rehash the old quarrels about the Easter Rising. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decisions taken, methods deployed and attitudes struck, certain aspects cannot be gainsaid about 1916. The supreme sacrifice which the central participants were prepared to make can only compel those of us who were born into a more comfortable and less challenging world to stand back and marvel.

And of course Kilmainham Gaol was the theatre where one of the most poignant of these human dramas was played out: the story of Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett, the sad chronicle of the artist and the poet. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the tragedy of their story reached a depth, which can almost be described as Shakespearean with its echoes of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. The fact that Joseph Plunkett, whose health was never robust, was an extremely ill man at the time, serves to intensify the poignancy of the narrative.

Indeed, the Shakespearean element is curiously enhanced when one considers that the marriage of Grace and Joseph was originally planned for Easter Sunday, 23 April at Rathmines Chapel. Of course, this plan was forestalled by the upheaval of the Rising which began the following day. As it happens, April 23, 1916 was, to the very day, the 300th anniversary of the death of Shakeskpeare.

In this new biography, the first of Grace Gifford to be written, we are confronted with unexpected details which yet again serve to startle us. The daughter of a Dublin solicitor, Grace was brought up in the loyalist community of the Dublin suburb of Rathmines. In spite of this upbringing, however, Grace, along with her sisters, became an ardent Nationalist. This element of the unexpected was to find an echo some seventy years later when the balladeer Jim McCann sang the heart-rending song 'Grace' into popularity. Even at the height of what is known as the Revisionist phenomenon this simple yet moving song of the ill-starred lovers struck a chord in the public heart.

Even those who are apolitical by temperament can still find much to wonder at in the human drama of Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett. Certain human feelings are impervious to the prevailing political trends and clear evidence of this truth is furnished by that melancholy ballad.

Nor is that latter-day ballad the only artistic legacy of this sad saga. Grace herself was an artist who had studied at the Slade School of Art in London and has left her own visual testament in the form of a mural of 'The Madonna and Child' on her cell wall.

As the American philosopher, Emerson, once shrewdly remarked: there is properly no history, only biography and as Margaret McCurtain so rightly points out in her perceptive foreword, 'Marie O'Neill has rescued Grace Gifford from the passivity of the tableau set eternally in Kilmainham prison chapel. She has found the building blocks which enabled her to present Grace Gifford in a coherent, lucid narrative that give the reader a sense of who Grace Gifford was, where she came from in the context of family, and what she became after her brief, sorrowful marriage ceremony'.

We are reminded too in the foreword that 'Marie O'Neill, with her historical and legal training, has for many years immersed herself in the revolutionary period that spans the activities of the Ladies Land League in the early 1880s through the aftermath of the Rising. Her biography of Jenny Wyse Poser was a noteworthy achievement that revealed her talents as a biographer and researcher. As befits a long-time member of the Old Dublin society, one of the singular attractions of this biography is the intimate knowledge of Dublin that Marie O'Neill exhibits in the details of where Grace lived after the execution of her husband.

In a large family of twelve children, the Gifford girls offer a gender study of much interest. They chose vigorous, exciting careers that womens' education and political activities of a nationalist and republican flavour offered. The profile of Grace Gifford Plunkett that emerges from Marie O'Neill's biography is that of a strong independent woman whose artistic talent manifested itself in satirical cartoons of a political and topical nature.

As Minister with responsibility for the Arts I am especially taken with the manner in which Marie O'Neill has chosen to illustrate her biography with examples of her subject's art, not least those caricatures which capture the spirit of the Abbey Theatre during the twenties.

The image we have had of Grace Gifford up to this has been a grim caricature: that of the tragic young widowed bride. With the publication of this biography however we are indebted to Marie O'Neill for providing us with a rounded portrait of the real person, of a woman who responded vigorously to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with a gaiety which found expression in her career as an incisive and skilful cartoonist and caricaturist.

I congratulate Marie on this biography and it now gives me great delight to formally preside at this launch.